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Stupid or wilful: Exam results common sense fails to spread from Scotland

12th August 2020

Earlier this week, there was an outbreak of common sense in Scotland. The expectation was that this outbreak would spread across the UK within days. In England, at least there seems to be a strong immune reaction to common sense and it has been contained. The announcement yesterday that the Westminster government would allow students to appeal based on previous ‘mock’ exams, and have their downgraded results adjusted upwards, comes too late for the UCAS/University selection machine that was already rolling. The decision comes as one of the most stupid actions I have seen in my many years in education. Common sense was confined to the waste bin. TEFS made Ten suggestions last Friday that could have been acted upon. They were to some extent followed in Scotland and the other governments across the UK could have also reversed out in time. The jury is out on whether this is a panic reaction by an incompetent government or whether it is driven by a wilful determination to maintain the existing inequalities. This is an update from the posting yesterday that is listed below this offering.

After teaching hundreds of first year science students in a university for over 35 years, I was sometimes tempted to say I had ‘seen everything’. However, there was always one student who came up with something unexpected to add to the list. Over the years this included many bizarre incidents such as one accidentally poking a scalpel blade into a fellow student’s arm and severing an artery. Or setting fire to the bench, using the extinguisher before rushing to turn off a gas tap and getting burned on molten plastic. I have many stories of experiences that were challenges at the time but became amusing with age. They usually came as a bolt out of the blue in what hitherto were ‘well organised’ courses. But reality always intervened and changed our preparedness for later courses.

Expect the unexpected.

Last night, I read the news that the Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, had announced something incredible. It was very late in the day and it will have shocked many students. My heart goes out to students who will be confused and angry at the same time. Many families will be waiting for A-level and BTEC results for the first time and it is very stressful at the best of times. The BTEC arrangements are often sidelined in the discussion, but around 50,000 take only BTEC or a mixture of BTEC and A-levels each year (see TEFS 5th April 2020 'To BTEC or not to BTEC, that is the question'). 

But the government seems to have forgotten that students are the only reason for the system in the first place. An obsession with ‘standards’ is overruling common sense and decency. I also feel for the university admissions staff who will be in the front line dealing with inquiries in the days to come. Along with distressed students, they might also need counselling after this is over. Many will be employed just for the summer and will be very sympathetic in the face of students in crisis. They will not be to blame for the situation their university employer fines itself in. 

Too late.

The decision in England comes after the Scottish Government apologised and decided to reverse the decision to moderate teacher assessments of grades across all exams yesterday This came after the furore over the results last week (see TEFS 4th August 2020 ‘SQA cements the inequality ‘goal posts’ into the ground’). Even this decision was too late as the UCAS machine was already rolling along since last week. See UCAS key dates. Results were released to universities by UCAS at 2pm last Friday and they have been working hard to reconcile these with their offers of places. They are on track to do this by 8pm tomorrow when students will see if they have been accepted on the UCAS Track page.

Uplifting grades based on teacher predictions, or ‘mock’ exam results, will take time. The government has panicked by trying to prempt stories in the media of students getting an A* in ‘mocks’ and then being awarded a B or less upon moderation; thereby missing out on a place. The Higher Education Minister, Michelle Donelan, made a plea to universities yesterday that they should hold back places for those with appeals in the pipeline ‘Government urges universities to hold places’. Yet by tomorrow the decisions will have been made. Again, this was too late and likely to be ineffective. The tragedy will occur when students find that they are not accepted for courses such as Medicine and the places are already filled. Then they find they are later awarded the grades necessary. Many school heads are dismayed and have reacted badly in sympathy with their students (BBC News today ‘Students warn mock grades 'make mockery' of exams’). Schools will now have to move very fast in a  narrowing window of opportunity. The tension will cause many to stumble along with their students.

Stupid or wilful?

The jury is out on this for now. However, the chair of the House of Commons Education Committee pulled no punches today, and he is a Conservative MP. Quoted in the Guardian, he confirmed what everyone in the Government must know. 

“I very much hope that those from disadvantaged backgrounds will not suffer from unfair grading, but whatever happens there needs to be an appeals system that is second to none, and accessible to everyone, not just the sharp-elbowed and the well-heeled”.

Their eyes are wide open, and they must know what they are doing.

Who is gaining the most?

This might provide the best explanation. With cohort and class sizes in many independent schools (Government data from 2018/18 and OECD data from 2017) much smaller than those in most state schools, it is those schools that benefit most from the moderation system used to date. They are less likely to have grades lowered with cohorts below fifteen. No doubt Halfon is correct and they will be faster off the mark in contacting universities and getting grades adjusted if they need to. They simply have far fewer students with which to contend.

The original decision of the government back in March that it will “not publish any school or college level educational performance data based on tests, assessments or exams for 2020” looks more significant today. They must not suppress comparative data about schools, and the government, UCAS and HESA must release all data pertaining to equality impact in a more timely manner. There is no doubt that that the data will be scrutinised like never before and it must be open and freely available.

An inquiry is needed to get to the roots of the problem.

The Scottish Government has moved fast to launch an inquiry into what has happened and how to fix the mistakes. This must move very fast to be credible. But the more this mess lumbers on, the more wilful it seems to be. There is no doubt that staff at Ofqual are experienced, qualified, and competent. They were appointed based on ability and experience and they should not be blamed. John Swinney was careful to point this out about staff at the SQA earlier this week and took the blame fully onto his own shoulders. After all, they carry out the orders of their political masters. 

It seems that the government has called the shots to date and this arises from the original letter sent by the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson to Ofqual back on 31st March 2020. This initial approach laid the foundation for what has become a very shaky edifice today. Add very unwise moves years ago by Michael Gove on examination reform (see The Student Room ‘Five ways Michael Gove has changed GCSEs and A-levels’) and these only made the scope for a future mess much greater.

The buck stops with Williamson and his fellow conspirators in government. They are not appointed on merit; they are elected with a mandate. Yet many lack the experience and skills to fully comprehend the vast government machinery they direct. The current government seems hell bent on reforming the Civil Service, so that it bends to their will. They seem to show little inclination to listen to those that must deliver their policies. The result is painfully apparent today. 

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics. He has served on the Senate and Finance and planning committee of a Russell Group University.

Posting from 11th August 2020
Scottish Government reverses out of trouble in outbreak of common sense

There was an unprecedented outbreak of common sense in Scotland today. No doubt those in the rest of the UK will be monitoring the situation closely in case it starts to spread. The Education Secretary, John Swinney, stood up in the Scottish parliament just after 3pm today and started with a rambling introduction about the examination administration this summer. He then broke out in a sweat of common sense. He took complete responsibility for the mistake of what he admitted was “downgrading” and reversed the exam results. Thereby removing the need for the massive number of appeals that were about to flood in. The Scottish government has adopted nearly all ten suggestions set out by TEFS a few days ago. This was the only sensible way out and the rest of the UK must follow in their footsteps.

In making this move today, Nicola Sturgeon and John Swinney rapidly reversed out of a mess that they had made for themselves. Swinney took full responsibility for asking the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) to focus on maintaining standards only. The result was a scandalous moderation procedure that downgraded a huge number of teacher predicted assessments and was in the end not defensible (see TEFS 4th August 2020 ‘SQA cements the inequality ‘goal posts’ into the ground’). It’s greater impact on schools from the least advantaged areas was the last straw for many.

A clip of the key part of the announcement is below. It is a watershed moment for government accepting responsibility and immediately led to more calls for Swinney’s resignation. It is hard to see how he can survive, but there's no doubt he will not go without a fight.

Swinney made other promises that were in the ten TEFS suggestions (see TEFS 7th August 2020 ‘Qfqual builds a concrete wall’). He indicated that he had many letters from students and found them compelling. This was no doubt a key driver in the decision. Those students are to be congratulated for standing up and making the case for those who were affected by the large numbers of downgraded results. Importantly, the regrading on teacher predictions will not be detrimental to students already awarded grades they were higher than predicted; there are a small number of these. New certificates will be sent out to students as soon as possible and new data sets released by the end of the month. This is a very short turnaround.

What now for Ofqual and others?

The same system has been adopted across the UK, with Ofqual in England hanging stubbornly onto their flawed methodology in the run up to results day on Thursday. TEFS made ten suggestions (see TEFS 7th August 2020 ‘Qfqual builds a concrete wall’) about how the government must now reverse out of the mess they had had created. Like Scotland, Ofqual cannot be blamed as it was all carried out after ministerial direction. They too were ordered to concentrate on maintaining standards as the sole objective. But this appears to have led to a larger proportion of grades being moved down than in Scotland. If this is the case, then calls for a rapid reversal in the results across the whole of the UK is going to happen. It would mean only using the teacher predicted grades as in Scotland and issuing new certificates almost as fast as the originals.

An urgent review is needed.

TEFS also suggested that there should be an independent review. This will take two forms in Scotland. A review of Scottish education and qualifications, commissioned form the OECD, will now take in the examination arrangements of 2020. But to add strength to the review, education expert Mark Priestly of Stirling University will conduct a review of what happened. This is important in restoring confidence.

TEFS calls on the government, Ofqual, and other authorities across the UK, to follow this lead and reverse their direction. There is still just enough time and the ten suggestions are listed again below.

  1. Go ahead with the current grades as it is too late to stop now with UCAS and clearing in the wings
  2. Reveal how the grades were calculated in detail with data available openly
  3. Report the awarded grades to the candidates, UCAS and the universities along with the predicted grades and the past performance of the school in each subject. This must include n, standard deviation and range.
  4. UCAS must set out guidance on how to use the data on each candidate as an individual. This includes a fair way to make contextual decisions that reflect the work and determination of the candidate along with potential they offer.
  5. All universities, including the elite research ones, should take context into account when awarding places this year. They should go further and pilot this as a way forward from next year.
  6. Appeals should be stopped at once. It will only advantage those from better off families that push harder and will be socially divisive and unfair.
  7. The entire process should be put under independent review to reassess all grades across every school and centre. It must be very robust and Qfqual and the government should not be allowed to hide in the corner.
  8. Resits in the Autumn might go ahead, but this must be uncertain as some will be impeded by more lock-downs by then. Students already in their first term at university should be given the same chance to improve since A-Level results will still be important in their later job applications.
  9. No student should have their results downgraded because of the review exercise. But if there are systemic errors and mistakes evident, then they should be openly acknowledged, and lessons learned.
  10. Regrading checks must be completed by the summer of 2020, and before the completion of the next round of examinations, to expedite university decisions for those trying again.

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics. He has served on the Senate and Finance and planning committee of a Russell Group University.


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